Fall foliage tour: How to experience Minnesota’s breathtaking river valleys

Out of our favorite places to experience fall foliage, Minnesota is one of the strongest contenders. When earthy reds and vibrant yellows descend upon the riverways, you’re in for a treat. North Shore (understandably) gets the most attention, but Minnesota’s striking river valleys are replete with some of the state’s finest fall activities. Our team even got a little confused when trying to decide if we were focusing on the Minnesota River Valley or the Mississippi River Valley. Ultimately, both are awesome and we couldn’t choose. So, we’ve included highlights from both — we’ll leave the decision making to you.


Here are 5 ways to bask in the magic that is autumnal Minnesota:


Trek around Great River Bluffs State Park


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Where: Mississippi River Valley

Distance from Minneapolis: 2.5 hours

If it wasn’t already evident from the name, Great River Bluffs State Park is your go-to spot for lofty river views covered in fall colors. This Mississippi River favorite offers blufftop views of the valley, and you better believe it looks like a postcard when the changing colors are in full swing. Steep valley walls and craggy cliffs offer a refreshing contrast to the usual flat terrain in the midwest. Hike, bike, birdwatch, and camp your way across the scene.


Take in views from the top of He Mni Can-Barn Bluff


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Where: Mississippi River Valley

Distance from Minneapolis: 1 hour 10 mins

The same town that brought you Red Wing Shoes is also home to one of the state’s most unique geographical features! He Mni Can-Barn Bluff Regional Park rises 350 feet into the air, offering a bird’s eye view of the Mississippi River’s grandeur. It’s a rock climber’s haven, with over 100 routes of varying difficulty to choose from. Woodlands, river banks, and limestone features make this spot a winner for taking in fall’s range of colors.


Zipline through the colorful foliage at Sandy Creek


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Where: Minnesota River Valley

Distance from Minneapolis: 45 mins

Why walk through fall foliage when you could soar right through it over 1,600 feet of zipline? These are questions we ask ourselves regularly… For those looking to get their dose of fall and adrenaline in one swoop, ziplining at Sand Creek Adventures is the way to go. It’s right outside of the Minnesota Valley State Recreation area, so when you’re ready to decompress from flying through the forest, you can take a leisure stroll through another one. Oh, not to mention, it’s also really close to Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store. Consider it a win-win.


Stroll around Red Wing for some small town charm

Red Wing Minnesota

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Where: Mississippi River Valley

Distance from Minneapolis: 1 hour 10 mins

Not only does Red Wing offer small town charm, the surrounding area is chock-full of leaf-peeping opportunities! Local Memorial Park presents views of the town, along with both the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the river bluffs. It’s popular with bikers and hikers alike with its well-maintained trails. It even has a 9-hole disc golf course, should you remember to bring your own frisbee. A short 15-minute drive will take you to Frontenac State Park, a more nature-immersive option just outside of town. Don’t forget to grab a beer at Red Wing Brewery in between hikes!


Explore Mankato’s Minneopa State Park


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Where: Minnesota River Valley

Distance from Minneapolis: 1.5 hours 

There’s nothing like waterfalls shrouded in fiery fall colors, and that’s exactly why Minneopa State Park has made our list. Located just 8 minutes outside of central Mankato, this park features a double waterfall — which is actually where the Dakota name of “Minneopa” comes from. Conveniently, there’s a trail that takes you right around the base of the falls, leading you down limestone steps to the lower valley. Above the valley, you’ll find 331 acres of bison range. Not too shabby for only an hour and a half outside of the Twin Cities.


The best part is: Our list is only the tip of the iceberg. Looking for a deep dive into each valley? We love these interactive maps of the Mississippi River Valley and the Minnesota River Valley. Check ‘em out for the full scoop! We’ll see you on the road.



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